What is Behind the Startling Disparities Among Racial Populations in the Spokane Jail?

by Dr. Patrick Jones

The data are just in:  on any given day in 2020, a little less the 0.2% of our county population was in the jail. Or, 662 per day. This average marks the lowest count in the series covered by Spokane Trends, 7.1.2.

For some, the lower number may be a cause for celebration. Alternative sentencing procedures may be working. For others, the lower number may be cause for concern, since property and violent crimes were still higher here than state-wide and the U.S. in 2020, as Trends indicators 7.1.4 and 7.1.5 reveal.

Regardless of the interpretation, one dimension of criminal justice in Spokane is hard to miss:  the disproportionate experience by race.

This is an admittedly busy graph but the flip side is its richness. Following the typology of the source, the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, the graph breaks down the jail population by four categories:  Blacks, Native Americans, Caucasian (including Hispanics) and “all other” races. The latter are composed of Asian-Americans, Native Hawaiian Pacific Islanders and “two or more races.” To enable comparisons beyond Spokane, the averages of all county jails in the state are juxtaposed in green.

The values are the shares of the adult population of each of these groups in the County (or state) that make up the average daily census of the County jail (or all jails in Washington). The lines give the overall adult (25+) population incarceration rate in jails.

To simplify the graph, viewers can click on the legend boxes. Try that as we discuss the various components.

The experience over the decade by the different races is nothing short of startling. For example, in 2020, 1.3% of the County’s adult Black population was in the County jail, on average. The all-population adult jail incarceration rate was 0.16%. Or, the Black rate was nearly eight times as high as the overall adult rate.

A similar result holds for Native Americans. In 2020, 0.8% of the adult Native American population in the county found itself in jail, on average. This is a five-fold multiple over the all population adult rate.

By contrast, the share of Caucasian adults behind the jail’s bars in 2020 was 0.14%, slightly below the overall adult rate. And the share of “Other” incarcerated in the county jail was an infinitesimal 0.04%, or one fourth the overall adult rate.

A quick scan reveals that 2020 was the best year (with the lowest values) shown in this series. For Blacks, peak incarceration occurred in 2013 through 2015, when the average daily census covered 1.8% of all adult Blacks in the County. In 2013, 1.2% of the adult Native American population in the County found itself behind the jail’s bars.

The disparities within the County are head-scratchers. Perhaps even more so is the comparison of Spokane to the state averages. Like Spokane, the average adult county jail population in Washington revealed racial disparities as well. But they were not as pronounced as here. For example, in 2020, Spokane’s share of incarcerated adult Blacks was nearly 2.5 times higher than the Washington average. For Spokane’s adult Native Americans, the multiple was about 2.

Part of the discrepancy may lie in the overall adult incarceration rate in Spokane. In 2020, it was one third higher than the overall adult incarceration rate in all Washington county jails. But that relationship wasn’t always so. From 2011 through 2014, the overall adult jail population as a share of total adult population was actually lower here than statewide.

This indicator raises many questions. Why has the overall “jailed rate” in Spokane been so much higher than the state? Does it merely reflect higher crime rates here than in Washington? If so, why is reported crime that much higher here than elsewhere in Washington? A higher propensity of our population to commit criminal acts? Higher police scrutiny and intervention? A combination of the both?

Whether measured by differences among Spokane County races or by differences to state averages, the disparity of races represented in the County jail cries out for answers. Are certain races truly committing a higher portion of crimes than others, relative to other races? Or does the differential presence of Blacks and Native Americans in the County jail reflect policing practices. Or, as covered recently by Shaun Vestal in the Spokesman Review, are different pretrial experiences – some jailed, some not - among the races also a part of this data picture.

It is likely that the reasons behind the reality of Trends indicator 7.1.2 are many. The community should begin to investigate them.